BACKSTORY: Part One, The House of Blakiston.

Over the next few weeks, my diary entries are pretty sparse. In late February and early March 1989, Linda and I were living a quiet life in Melbourne, Australia, working long hours and saving our money for the next leg of our travels which would take us to England. So, while not much is going on, let’s re-cap my backstory and find out about some of the aspects of my life that had occurred before we set off to travel…

I come from Geraldine. Someone had to. My hometown, Geraldine, on New Zealand’s South Island, doesn’t have any notable citizens. We can’t lay claim to being the birthplace of a great politician, or an eminent scientist, or even some famous deviant, serial killer or chef. The closest thing Geraldine has to a celebrity is Jordan Luck: frontman of the band The Exponents. And even then, Mr Luck is actually from Woodbury, five miles west of Geraldine. He did, of course, attend Geraldine High School, my alma mater. He was, in fact, a year ahead of me, and his sister, Tamsin, and I were in the same year. But although The Exponents are an iconic New Zealand band, their fame, unfortunately, hardly extends beyond our shores.    

Furthermore, the South Island of New Zealand doesn’t exactly occupy a prime position on the globe. Our island is close to the uttermost end of the Earth.  It’s about as far south as you can go on the planet. Go much further and you start to go north again. Beyond Bluff, the southernmost town in the British Commonwealth, next upright creature you’ll run into is an Adelie penguin.  That’s how far south we are.

fac bene nec dubitans

As well as coming from the arse-end of the planet, I also come from a long line of travellers: restless souls who roamed the globe searching for adventure and a better life. Some of them were seekers of political change, such as John Blakiston (1603-1649), whose signature appears on the death warrant of Charles the First, executed by Cromwell and his henchmen – of which JB was one, the traitorous bastard  – during the English Civil War.

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The Death Warrant of Charles I. John Blakiston’s signature and seal is second from the top of column three.

My great-grandfather, Charles Robert Blakiston came to New Zealand in 1860 having first tried his luck in the Australian goldfields.  When he arrived in the settlement of Christchurch (which is today New Zealand’s second largest city) he traded a horse for a plot of land which he subsequently sold to the fledgeling city for a fortune.  He ended up a successful lawyer and member of the New Zealand Provincial Government. His son, Arthur John Blakiston, born in 1862, managed a high country sheep station for forty years and lived long enough to be photographed holding me as a five-month-old baby in 1963.

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My father Arthur Norman Hunter Blakiston, 64; my great-uncle Arthur John Blakiston, 103; Ferguson Arthur James Blakiston, 5 months.

Another of my great-uncles, Thomas Wright Blakiston, was an eminent explorer, soldier and ornithologist. He fought in the Crimean War, was on the Palliser Expedition which mapped the border between Canada and the United States, explored the Yangtze River during the Taiping Rebellion, and lived in Japan’s northern-most island, Hokkaido, for 21 years. There will be more about TWB in later posts.

Then there was Lionel Blakiston, Thomas’s cousin.  Lionel was a British telegraph engineer who emigrated to Rhodesia in the 1880s and was subsequently killed in the Mashona Uprising.  Upon hearing that Mashona tribesmen had taken a group of women and children hostage, he rode to their rescue, bringing them home to friendly territory but getting mortally wounded in the process.  A street in Harare, in present-day Zimbabwe, bears his name along with a school, whose coat of arms is that of the Blakiston Family: a cock gules above a bar argent.

In 1760, my great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, Matthew Blakiston was elected Lord Mayor of London.  He lived for that year, as all Lords Mayor did at the time, in the Mansion House, a grand, collonaded residence opposite the Bank of England.  His wife, Emily, is the only woman ever to have given birth in the Mansion House. Lords Mayor were usually older men for whom the post was the final, crowning achievement at the end of long, successful careers.  Blakiston, however, in keeping with a family trait of marrying and producing offspring late in life, was still in the process of creating a family when he became Lord Mayor and his son, Matthew, was born at the Mansion House that year.  

For his efforts as head of the City of London, Matthew Blakiston was created a Baronet in 1763, exactly 200 years before I was born.  He died in 1791 and was buried in the graveyard of St. Martins-in-the-Fields.

The Baronetcy is a hereditary knighthood: a “Sir” rather than a Lord, and not a peer. Although the term “baronet” has medieval origins, the modern Baronetcy was established in 1611 by King James 1 as a method with which to fund his Irish wars.  The idea was that any man who could provide the Exchequer with the money necessary to keep thirty soldiers in the field for three years would be granted a Baronetcy. The title would be handed down from father to son, thus ensuring a continual supply of cash to fund whatever war happened to be going on at the time.  

Do well and doubt not.
                        – Blakiston Family Motto

This proved to be a nice little earner for a while; at least, that is, until the sons succeeding to the title began to run out of money.  Just because the title of Baronet had been granted to a wealthy great-grandfather didn’t necessarily guarantee the family fortune would still be intact for his great-grandson to invest in dubious overseas campaigns.  The Baronetcy, therefore, lapsed in its role as a revenue supply for the army and became simply another hereditary title.

The Baronetcy awarded to Matthew Blakiston was passed down from father to son for seven generations until it hit a dead end.  The 7th Baronet, Arthur Frederick Blakiston, a decorated First World War hero, member of the first Barbarians rugby team and Master of the Wylie Valley Hunt, died “without issue” (i.e. without children). It seemed that the title would become extinct.  But the tireless heralds at the Royal College of Arms, keepers of the arcane language and symbols of the realm, were on the case. They traced the male line to my father, Arthur Norman Hunter Blakiston, who acceded to the title of 8th Baronet in 1974.  

Dad never set any store in airs and graces.  A privately-educated, university-trained solicitor he was nevertheless a rough diamond.  He called a spade a fucking shovel and to him, a man’s worth was proved by his actions, not by his breeding.  The title of Baronet was the absolute antithesis of the egalitarian principles he lived by. But he was a perceptive man and he realized that one day, his eldest son might have a use for the title, so he reluctantly accepted it, and that was that.  

He seldom spoke of it.  His friends occasionally ribbed him about it.  My mother’s friends began calling her Lady Blakiston and our house became known as Sandybrook Hall, after the family seat in Ashbourne, Derbyshire.  At school, I was sometimes teased about it. My best friend, Keats, used to call me Sir Bastipol Bock for reasons known only to him. But it was nothing that caused even the remotest bit of hurt and the perpetrators would soon tire of hassling me and find some other unfortunate to pick on.     

My father died in 1977 when I was fourteen.  He was seventy-eight years old. Students of arithmetic will notice that he would have been sixty-four when I was born and they are right.  He was sixty-five when my brother Joe came along. That same family peculiarity, of having children late in life, that had seen Matthew Blakiston’s wife produce the Mansion House’s only baby, had surfaced again.  

It meant that instead of being born in the 1920s, as would have been the case if dad had taken the usual route and started a family in his twenties, I grew up in the 1970s.  It meant that instead of being a fan of Bing Crosby or Cole Porter, I was able to become a fan of Pink Floyd, Genesis, My Chemical Romance and John Denver. It meant that instead of having to go off to World War Two and have my brains blown out for King and Country as my Uncle Jim (my mother’s brother) did, I was able to watch the Gulf War on CNN.  It meant that I would be able to be a part of the technological revolution created by the internet and social media. And it meant that in the year 1988, instead of being a grandfather of seventy-something years, I was able, as the 9th Baronet of the City of London, to set off out into the world…

TO BE CONTINUED

7/2/89

 “The Night of Madness”

At about 4:30 on Tuesday afternoon it began to rain. And what a rain it was. It absolutely pissed down. In about 45 minutes, nearly an inch of rain fell on parts of Melbourne along with a massive display of thunder and lightening. By about 5:30 it had stopped and I walked up to the station to find that the Sandringham train wasn’t running due to flooding. I caught a packed tram down to Swanson¹ and joined the hundreds of thousands of people trying to get home. The trams were jam packed with people and were caught up in snarled traffic which stretched from Swanson right to Balaclava². I joined the throngs of people who were legging it home, splashing through puddles and listening to On the Beach³ while thousands of pissed off commuters sat in their stalled or jammed cars. It took about 2 hours to walk home and I got there to find Russ† & Linda there with stories of their own to tell. Russ had walked all the way from Fitzroy and still had 2 hours walking left. Linda had been on the last Sandringham train and it had gotten bogged in 2 feet of water and slips coming down from the embankment. They had waited for an hour while the thunder roared and the lightning crashed overhead and then had been evacuated from the train via a plank & up the embankment & she had walked home from Pharham in the pouring rain.  The radio called it the “Night of Madness” & it goes to show what chaos a big city can be thrown into when something like a big storm happens. As Jethro Tull put it in the song Dun Ringill:

LINES JOIN IN FAINT DISCORD
AND THE STORMWATCH BREWS
A CONCERT OF KINGS
AS THE WHITE SEA SNAPS
AT THE HEELS OF A SOFT PRAYER
WHISPERED.

¹ Swanson Street railway station
² The suburb where we lived
³ A Chris Rea album I had on tape.
†Our friend from cherry-picking

6/2/89

– this is a poem that was on a billboard at South Yarra station.

        “THE CRANES”

STAR GUIDED, BEATING ALONG THE SOUTHERN TRAIL
THIS YEAR AGAIN THE FLIGHT OF CRANES.¹
HIGH IN THE MIDNIGHT SKY I DO NOT KNOW FROM
WENCE, OR HOW TO LIGHT THE MOON.
HOLDING THE BEDPOSTS TIGHT I MEASURE
THE PULSE OF YOUR BREATHING
IN THE DARK, AND I SEE YOUR STREAMING HAIR
AND YOUR FACE WEDGED IN THE WIND.

¹ Thirty years later I would still use the phrase “the flight of cranes” to caption occasional photographs.

 

5/2/89

Lacking something to do today we caught the 12:24 train from Flinders Street to Williamstown. The trip out was quite interesting as we passed through the Spencer St¹ shunting yard with their hundreds of overhead wires looking like spiders webs and row upon row of goods carriages sitting on the sidings waiting their turn to be shunted.

The train took us out past Moonee Valley race-course and under the approach to the Westgate bridge, past some of the factories and we are houses in Footscray.

We changed trains at Newport and it took us to Williamstown which is the end of the line. We wandered up a street looking for the main street and as we were passing the warehouse the lovely smell of wool came to us. I looked in the broken window in the place was full of bales of wool and the stuff that woolsheds contain, wool packs, scales piles of wool here & there and other bits & pieces

We wandered up the main street and sussed out which one of the quaint little places we would have lunche in. In the end we had it at the Customs House which is a really nice place. I had kidneys and bacon (YUM!!) and Linda had roast lamb.

After lunch we went across to the harbour & sat at the end of the wharf where the St. Kilda ferry comes in. The mass of the moored yachts were all rocking backwards & forwards in time with the waves coming in and the wind made a high pitch screeching in the rigging of yachts & the mesh fences.

Across the other side of the harbour a huge container ship with “Toyota” written on the side of it was being eased away from the wharf by two tug boats.

We watched the ferry come and go then walked up to a little teashop for a Devonshire tea.

Back at the station we caught the train back to Flinders Street then the Sandringham train which we stayed on to Sandringham and back.

¹ Spencer Street is one of Melbourne’s main railway stations.

4/2/89

        – from THE AGE¹ 

“STANDARD HAY BALES”

Not the newies with their silly van Gogh swirls but the standard block of desiccated perfumes. A fifty acre paddock gridlocked with them, each one is green and slow bunched is a caterpillar, the lasered space as chocked as a trailbike’s tread. Only once there’s one diving on its either end where the stron- armed bailer baled dissent (a digit raised against the uniformity on show) while the rest is passive in its even traffic jam which from above becomes a repetitious Pianola roll then in 3D is more like mid lines of tidy droppings.  A lane is kept aside on each mowed stretch and well before the outside windrows are pressed the carters start to gather there like formalists.
                                              – Philip Hodgins.

¹ This poem was printed in The Age, Melbourne’s main daily newspaper.

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